San Diego faces more adversity with another injury

December, 8, 2008
San Diego had a huge advantage in playing the WCC tournament at home this past March, beating Saint Mary's and Gonzaga to win the title.

Winning at Kentucky earlier in the season and then taking out Connecticut (even though A.J. Price was out of that game with a torn ACL) proved that the Toreros deserved a place in the NCAA field last season.

But it's going to take a herculean effort to get another shot this March. The Toreros were dealt a crushing blow to their postseason hopes, let alone their chance of catching Saint Mary's for second place in the conference (sorry, but I don't see how Gonzaga is going to lose first place in the WCC) when their leading scorer, senior Brandon Johnson, ruptured his Achilles tendon in a loss at San Diego State on Saturday night.

Johnson was leading USD (4-4) in scoring (13.5 points per game), assists (3.6) and steals (1.6). The injury occured just as the Toreros are hitting the most critical stretch of their nonconference schedule, with the game against the Aztecs (a 57-46 loss after Johnson went down in the first half), San Jose State and New Mexico at home, Oregon in Portland and then a road trip to Mississippi State sandwiched between home games against Boise State and Marshall.

"He's devastated," second-year coach Bill Grier said of Johnson. "I'm honestly more concerned for the kid than the team. I don't think this is how he should go out as a senior. He's within 130 points or so of being the school's all-time leading scorer."

Grier said the NCAA rule that states a player cannot play in more than 30 percent of the team's games before redshirting gives him hope that Johnson can obtain a medical redshirt and play as a fifth-year senior in 2009-10. But Grier said Johnson isn't even thinking about a medical redshirt at this juncture.

This is actually the second Achilles injury for USD this season. Freshman guard Devonier Braswell ruptured his Achilles during a September workout and is out for the season.

Grier is offsetting the loss of Brandon Johnson with the return of sophomore guard Trumaine Johnson from his eight-game suspension. Trumaine Johnson, who averaged 5.7 points a game last season, played 40 minutes in the win over UConn in the first round of the 2008 NCAA tournament, scoring eight points. Brandon Johnson scored 18 points in 45 minutes (the game went into overtime) in that win.

The injury news doesn't end there. Junior guard De'Jon Jackson is out with a knee injury that could keep him down for a few more weeks. He has played in five games so far this season, averaging 5.4 points a game.

So, where does this leave the Toreros for this stretch? They're likely in the hands of Rob Jones, Grier said. The sophomore forward has been extremely erratic this season, scoring 23 points in a win over Nevada, going scoreless against Miami in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands and scoring just four points in the loss to the Aztecs.

"He's got to step up," Grier said of Jones. "He's athletic and can make a play. When stuff wasn't going well offensively, Brandon did that for us. Now Jones has to do that, and he's that kind of athlete."

The WCC tournament is at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas this season, meaning Gonzaga holds the edge in the neutral-site setting. The Zags have the most talent -- and have for years -- but playing true road games in the WCC tourney has its disadvantages. Gonzaga travels well for the conference tournament, so the Zags shouldn't have a problem. That means a team like Saint Mary's might have to earn its way into the NCAA tournament as an at-large team and a team like USD, especially now with the loss of Johnson, will have an extremely difficult chore to make a return trip.

• Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon is looking for another Big East team to come to his place. But unless the Big East coaches are backed into a corner and have their heads in the sand, another one going up there anytime soon is probably unlikely.

Buffalo beat Rutgers and South Florida and nearly clipped Pitt and more recently UConn in the past four seasons at home.

How does this keep happening? Three of the four games were played because scheduling became a problem for those Big East teams late in the season, while the Rutgers game was played to accommodate the football schedule.

The UConn game occurred because the Huskies needed a team for their 2007 Coaches vs. Cancer regional. Buffalo filled that spot, playing the Huskies in the tournament last season in return for a home game against them this season. The Huskies won 68-64 at Buffalo on Thursday.

"I'm hoping people here don't think it's, 'Who do we play next year?'" Witherspoon said. "I understand if the shoe was on the other foot that it would be tough to come here. I understand how much money those schools make on home games. Hopefully the other schools have done and are willing to do it again. I'll go on the road first if someone will come back. We'll keep trying."

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said playing at Buffalo is an example of how hard it is to play on the road, emphasizing how the Bulls pack the gym for the big-name schools.

"Our guys do get juiced up," Witherspoon said. "I do think that these teams come in here and don't realize how tough a game it is going to be. Pitt was caught by surprise by that. I don't think Connecticut was."

But now, the issue for Buffalo is whether the Bulls can translate these close calls into winning the MAC.

Buffalo did beat Temple at home, but following a Dec. 20 home game against UNC Asheville, the Bulls will hit the road until Jan. 17. That incudes a tough game at Siena and a tournament in Hawaii. But with only four teams -- Buffalo, Akron, Ball State and Miami of Ohio -- over .500, no one else in the MAC stands out. Preseason favorite Kent State is 3-5.

Witherspoon said the Bulls are playing better defense than they had recently but still have to be consistent in these games to show they've truly improved.

• Maryland won a game it was supposed to Sunday, beating George Washington 76-53 in Washington, D.C., to move to 6-2.

• Baylor still is the only road team to win in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood series. The Bears won 58-52 at Washington State on Saturday. One of the most impressive wins in the series belongs to Missouri, which crushed Cal 93-66 Sunday to move to 7-1 on the season.

• Ritchie McKay continues to put together an impressive run this season. Liberty nearly clipped Clemson on Sunday on the road, losing 80-75 behind Seth Curry's 24. Liberty already has wins over Virginia and George Mason.

• Florida State beat Florida 57-55 Sunday night at home. The Gators should be an NCAA team because of the weakening SEC. But once again, Florida will lack quality wins. So far, the Gators have one win -- over Washington in Kansas City, Mo. -- against a team that might make the postseason. The only other team like that left on their nonconference schedule is NC State on Jan. 3.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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